“Hamilton,” one of the most decorated and beloved musicals in Broadway history, is under attack. Although the hip-hop-inspired production has received overwhelming critical and commercial success, “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” suggests that as “Hamilton” glorifies its namesake, the ghosts of those wronged by him are turning in their graves.
MacArthur Fellowship-winning playwright Ishmael Reed strongly objects to the romanticized history of the U.S. portrayed in “Hamilton.” His play, showing at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, is an attempt to set history straight by telling stories that were excluded from Miranda’s hit musical.
Since its founding in 1973, the Nuyorican has been known for its dedication to uplifting underrepresented voices and presenting more experimental works by poets, actors, filmmakers and musicians alike. Allen Ginsberg called it “the most integrated place on the planet.” It is a fitting venue for Reed’s work.
For the show, which is in its second running, the Nuyorican was transformed into Miranda’s (Jesse Bueno) antique-filled living room. Miranda is asleep at his keyboard in the opening scene. A ruthless George Washington (Robert Turner) enters, followed by Alexander Hamilton (Zachary Clarence) who admits, right off the bat, to his involvement in the slave trade. Then, Miranda wakes up; it was all a dream.
This intertwining of past and present persists throughout the play as Miranda has Ambien-induced hallucinations of ghosts who are offended by his musical: a slave who worked for the Schuyler girls, his nameless mother, a Native American couple, an indentured Irish servant, a runaway slave who was killed in her escape for freedom. Harriet Tubman (Roz Fox) makes an appearance in a particularly moving performance. Each ghost scolds Miranda, presenting him with personal anecdotes, dates, facts and decrees which substantiate their claim that Hamilton was a racist hypocrite.
Throughout these hauntings, a befuddled Miranda tries to defend himself, and in doing so only further reveals his ignorance. While Ron Chernow (Tom Angelo), who Miranda later confronts, is the greedy villain, Miranda is portrayed as a gullible victim. Instead of trying to discuss the ghosts’ claims, he brazenly denies them by repeating the same line: Chernow — his solitary source — is a “prize-winning historian” whose book is “800 pages long!”
This lack of substantial back-and-forth dialogue furthers the play’s structure as a succession of occasionally digressive monologues which are a bit like fragmentary history lessons. Still, it is exciting to have history uncovered before you in such a ruthless and unforgiving way.
The play also delves into a more complex social and historical critique when it hints at tensions between two marginalized groups (African slaves and Native Americans). It is also playfully self-aware at times, such as when Miranda calls out Reed, the playwright, for contributing to “Hamilton” by buying “two orchestral tickets” to see the show.
In the comically idealistic ending, Lin atones for his sins: He rejects an award for “Hamilton” and apologizes for his “crime against history” while the ghosts stand proudly behind him.
“The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” is showing at Nuyorican Poets Cafe until Oct. 27.
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